Eye on Image-Making: Robert Frank Redux

After last month’s column on Robert Frank appeared, I received an e-mail from Walter Dufresne, who is an adjunct assistant professor in the Advertising Design and Graphic Arts Department at New York City College of Technology, which is part of The City University of New York.

Professor Dufresne was kind enough to share with me the transcript of a 1975 talk Frank gave at Wellesley College, which was subsequently published in the now out-of-print book “Photography Within the Humanities.”

In what was apparently an informal Q&A session with students, Frank fielded a number of inquiries about his professional career and his approach to the art of photography and filmmaking. In light of some of the observations I made about Frank’s work, I thought it would be useful to revisit the topic by hearing from the artist himself.

The Artist’s Words as Minefield

As a good post-modernist, I have been taught to view with a healthy dose of skepticism anything said or written by an artist about his or her work. There are many reasons for this skeptical approach.

First, artists — be they painters, writers, composers, photographers, or filmmakers — often have a vested interest in creating and maintaining a certain persona. Thus, although they might not lie or fabricate (although some do), they may manipulate the truth by exaggerating certain aspects of their life and careers, and omitting others.

Second, artists can be woefully inarticulate about their own art and the motivations that bring it into being — for this we have critics. Third, artists may be unaware — because of their particular psychological, cultural, educational, and family histories — of the way their work resonates with the many individuals who make up their audiences. Finally, an artist may have embraced his or her particular form of self-expression precisely because of an inherent inability to express thoughts and emotions any other way. All in all, reading or listening to what an artist has to say can be like stepping through a minefield — use caution!

“The Americans”—Ancient History

Having said this, many of us in the image-making field love to attend lectures by other image makers, read articles about them, and try to understand their approach to the creative process. What I found particularly revealing about the Frank article is that the body of work for which he is revered among photographers, “The Americans,” was by 1975 ancient history for Frank, who had subsequently turned to filmmaking.

Frank says that when he set out in 1955 to work on “The Americans,” funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, he was “very ambitious.” Everything was aligned perfectly for the type of book Frank wanted to create: he had studied the work of the great American master Walker Evans (who helped Frank secure the fellowship), he was seeing the country for the first time (as a Swiss-born Jew), and the mood of America had darkened considerably from the heady days following World War II when Frank first arrived in New York City.

Now the Cold War was roiling America’s sense of security, and the first stirrings of the Civil Rights movement were highlighting racial and economic injustices in the so-called land of the free. In fact, Frank was arrested in McGee, Arkansas, and jailed for three days — all for being a suspicious-looking foreigner with a carload of cameras. The name Guggenheim was apparently not familiar to the arresting officer.

From Still to Moving Images

Frank claims to have made the switch from still to moving images because he was afraid that being a successful still photographer would necessarily mean losing his intuitive approach by attempting to analyze and perfect his craft. Frank says that being a filmmaker, on the other hand, allowed him to experiment and try new things:

I’ve never been successful at making films, really. I’ve never been able to do it right. And there’s something terrific about that. There’s something good about being a failure—it keeps you going.

I found this statement intriguing, because in my experience most people tend to avoid endeavors where failure is the expected or desired outcome.

According to Frank, another appeal of filmmaking for Frank is the opportunity to interact with people, to communicate with his subjects, and not to be “just an observer.” In other words, the filmmaker is almost the opposite of the fly-on-the-wall snapshooter, because most filmmaking is usually a group effort that involves planning, direction, and cooperation.

Also, says Frank, filmmaking is a complex process that involves “thinking in long durations, and keeping up a kind of sequence,” which, again, is different from the type of candid street photography found in “The Americans.”

Life Magazine

In the 1950s, Henry Luce’s “Life” dominated the American market for documentary photography, and Frank had a curious relationship with the magazine. At first he was eager to have his pictures published in the magazine, but after several rejections, Frank says he “developed a tremendous contempt for them, which helped me.” Asked how such contempt might have helped him, Frank says he wanted to follow his own intuition and not “make a ‘Life’ story….Those goddamned stories with a beginning and an end.”

What are we to make of Frank’s intense antipathy toward this seeming bastion of American photojournalism? Certainly rejection played a part, but so did Frank’s opinion that to make good art, “you have to be enraged.” It is interesting to compare Frank’s veneration for the work of Evans or of British photographer Bill Brandt with his outright contempt for the work, since the mid 1950s anyway, of Mr. Decisive Moment himself, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

What was missing from Cartier-Bresson’s work? In Frank’s opinion, it lacked a definitive point of view:

He traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition. That’s certainly why “Life” gave him big assignments. They knew he wouldn’t come up with something that wasn’t acceptable.

Here Frank seems to be portraying himself as a somewhat dangerous outsider who would likely shock the staid sensibilities of “Life” readers, not to mention its editors. Not surprising, when you consider that Frank had recently finished making a documentary about the 1972 Rolling Stones American tour called “Cocksucker Blues,” a film Frank got to show but once a year, thanks to the Stones and their lawyers, who were shocked, shocked to find that there was, in fact, a little (ha!) sex and drugs mixed in with the rock and roll. Did a little of the Jagger-Richards mystique rub off on the filmmaker?

I’ll Say Something Nasty

Frank’s fellow photographers don’t fare well in his appraisals of their work. In addition to Cartier-Bresson, he lambasts such 20-century icons as Ralph Gibson, Elliott Erwitt, Gjon Mili, and Irving Penn — for treating photography as “a game with aesthetics or taste, or artistry…or jokes. Name somebody and I’ll say something nasty about them.”

Frank condemns any images he finds boring, including some of his own, and reserves praise only for those photographers who he feels are “obsessed,” such as Diane Arbus and W. Eugene Smith (I assume that is the Smith referred to in the article).

Frank saves his harshest criticisms for universities and those who teach photography and filmmaking — even though at the time of his talk, Frank was teaching filmmaking for two months at the University of California at Davis. He says:

If you’re an artist, I think that the university world is not good. I think the real world is better. You have to be against the system in some way. How do you do that? That’s the question. You’re not going to do it here, or in any school. That much I know. Because this is where the system is taught, and you’re a part of it, and I’m a part of it. And I don’t want to be a part of it. But I’m here. I’m being paid. And that’s my thing; that’s the whole thing that I have to offer — that I wasn’t part of it.

Like his conflicted relationship with “Life” magazine, Frank evidently had a similar ambivalence about his work — no matter how short-lived — as a professor.

The Stranger and The Detective

One questioner makes the observation that Frank seems to express “an element of the stranger” in both his films and his photographs. Frank responds by agreeing with the observation and saying that this comes from “years of photography, where you walk about, you observe, and you walk away, and you begin to be a pretty good detective.”

The detective metaphor is provocative, because we associate detectives with crimes and solutions — and there is also a strong association with the film-noir personae of the hard-boiled gumshoe, one step ahead of the criminals and the cops, with a dame on his arm and a fedora tipped rakishly above the turned-up collar of his trench coat.

What “crimes” did Frank witness with his camera, and what “solutions” to the mysteries of life did he provide with his images? I’ll let Frank have the last word: “You know, one of the worst things an artist can do is talk about his work.”

One Response to “Eye on Image-Making: Robert Frank Redux”

  1. Hi David,

    How do you use Frank in your classroom? What criteria do you use to grade student works in the application of Frank? And, oh, a curious point at the National Gallery of Art.

    In the listing for the Frank exhibition (http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2009/frank/index.shtm) it is stated that the work "The Americans" was ground breaking. Yet concurrent with the Frank exhibition was an exhibition titled "Reading the Modern Photography Book" (http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2009/frank/library/index.shtm ) which discusses how photographers would assemble books as both art objects and documentaries.

    What's curious is that Frank's book is missing from the commentary and accompanying slide show. The slide show would also lead an observer to realize how many works similar to Franks predated his work.

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